Journalists have long had a love/hate relationship with PR professionals. Tanya Lewis discovers the media's true feelings about the profession
While the fortunes of traditional media have been in steady decline over the past few years, PR has increased its importance and profile in the marketing mix. Industry leaders have worked tirelessly to prove the business value of PR, and in turn they've become trusted advisers to many of the world's biggest companies.
Good relationships with traditional media are certainly part of the industry's value to clients. Yet in their quest to get that “seat at the table,” PR pros can sometimes forget the relationship part of media relations. Overwhelmingly, journalists deem PR most valuable when practitioners understand their outlets and readers, and work with them to develop stories that meet their objectives.
“Some PR people are my most valuable sources of story ideas,” says Terry Savage, the nationally syndicated personal finance columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who also writes a regular column for TheStreet.com. “They know the area I cover and the kinds of stories I'd be interested in. They're invaluable because they frequently alert me to an issue in advance of general news headlines, and because they show me how their client has a unique ‘solution,' product, or service that's geared to my readership.
“Whenever I get an e-mail or call from them, I pay attention,” she adds.
“Even when they leave one company and go somewhere else, I pay attention. That trust is built up over time.”
A couple of years ago, a PR pro presented Savage with information about his client Geezeo.com and explained why the site would benefit her readers.
“It was something I never would have known about,” she says. “He [recently] sent me a release about another new company. Initially I turned him down because I thought it was ‘too sophisticated' for my audience. Nicely, persistently, and because I trusted him from the last time, he helped me turn his client into a very useful column.”
Kelsey Hubbard, reporter/producer at The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, believes most PR people are “very good” and she enjoys working with “a lot” of them.
“I'm currently working with someone who is getting us an interview with Mark Spitz,” she adds. “He wasn't doing a lot of press, but when Michael Phelps broke his [Olympic] record, he became more in focus. [The PR person] is going out of her way to help us access someone who is in the moment and in demand. That's really helpful.”
Brad Dorfman, senior correspondent for US consumer products and retail at Reuters, also appreciates the access PR pros can provide. “[PR is] a useful conduit [at] times when I'm trying to explain to an executive why I'm looking to talk to them,” he says. “They are more helpful when I come to them with an idea. They're not automatically as helpful when trying to sell me a story idea.”
Dorfman estimates that about 70% of the time he deals with in-house corporate PR pros, who he says provide “quicker turnaround” than agencies and who usually understand Reuters and the types of stories he wants.
“I'm... less likely to get a pitch from an in-house PR person and then follow through and [find] out [that] what's being offered isn't what's being delivered,” he adds. “Outside PR [pros often] promise one thing and it slowly slips away to the point where there's nothing interesting to our readers to write about.”
Terence Noonan, executive producer at CBS affiliate WUSA9 in Washington, DC, who also consults as a media strategist for Epic Media Relations, says many PR people “don't understand how to give producers what they need.
“Producers are overworked [and] looking for people who are going to make their life easier,” he adds.
Noonan cites a recent experience when a PR person offered to let him film a segment featuring her client (a chef at a Virginia restaurant) at her house in DC rather than having a crew go to Virginia. “I'll go back to that person 100 times,” he says.
It's no secret that irrelevant press releases and excessive follow-up calls annoy journalists, yet they still occur fairly frequently. Both Hubbard and Savage compare the e-mail blast approach to throwing something against a wall.
“If you sent an e-mail, chances are I got it,” Hubbard says. “To keep calling puts a bad taste in [my] mouth.”
“I feel sorry for young college grads... making cold calls from PR firms,” Savage adds. “Mostly they have no idea what they're talking about – they are just reading a script. I delete [those voice-mails] automatically.”
Savage also dislikes “PR people who act authoritative, but haven't checked recent columns,” noting that she sometimes gets e-mail pitches on topics that she covered a week ago.
Offering a too narrow focus is another common complaint. A cosmetics company that was launching a new product recently offered Hubbard an interview with its CEO, but when she asked the CEO about earnings, the PR person jumped in front of the camera and stopped the interview. “I was shocked,” Hubbard says. “It's annoying. They have to be prepared to discuss the company [in a larger context].”
Noonan thinks that because PR as a career has been glamorized on shows such as Sex and the City and now The Hills, some younger pros don't truly understand the work.
“They want to leave to go to the party as opposed to doing research, work, and strategy,” he notes.
Savage stresses that in 20 years as a journalist, she has worked with a lot of PR people, and that she really values them overall.
“With some, we've stayed in touch over the years, just to keep up, even though they don't have something to pitch,” she says. “Those are the most rewarding relationships and have helped me tremendously.”
When journalists and PR pros clash
The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten refers to PR pros as “pathetic, desperate dillweeds” in a column, lamenting the wording of press releases. “One word never suffices when 16 can do the job; big, important-sounding words are better than small, clear ones,” he writes.
Wired's editor-in-chief Chris Anderson posts an entry titled, “Sorry PR People: you're Blocked,” publishing a list of the PR people that have spammed him with irrelevant press re-leases over the past 30 days, thereby inheriting a permanent spot in his spam folder.
The New York Times' David Carr writes an exposé of Fox News' PR operation, one that causes a “series of alarms” to whoop in his head whenever he writes those “seven little letters – ‘Fox News'”